Many state workplace safety agencies are falling short in their mission of providing safety and health protections to their states’ workforces, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health said today after analyzing the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s annual evaluations of the state programs.
Under the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Act, state-run OSHA programs must be at least as effective as federal OSHA. Each year, OSHA issues Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation reports that measure how state-run programs perform.
This year, federal OSHA found a wide range of problems and shortcomings in the state programs, including inadequate enforcement staffing, low fines, poor investigative procedures of whistleblower complaints, slow response to complaints and failure to verify that employers had corrected violations for which they had been cited.
“This year’s reports call into question whether workers in some states that run their own OSHA programs are adequately protected on the job,” said Tom O’Connor, executive director of National COSH. “From staffing shortages to insufficient penalties against negligent employers, some of these state-run programs fail to acceptably enforce worker safety rules.”
A number of states have fallen far below the enforcement staffing benchmarks agreed upon between federal OSHA and the state programs, calling into question whether these programs are capable of enforcing the OSH Act in their states. Cuts to state budgets likely will further exacerbate this situation.
Many states have very low fines for serious violations, even for repeat violators in some states. But because fines are so low, many companies may factor in the penalties simply as a cost of doing business instead of ensuring safe and healthy conditions for their employees. In a number of states, nearly all whistleblower complaints are dismissed as “without merit.” This raises doubts about whether whistleblowers who speak up about unsafe conditions are receiving adequate review and protection. In addition, many states regularly classify as “non-serious” violations that federal OSHA believes should be considered “serious,” resulting in lower penalties.
A number of states offer automatic penalty reductions for “cooperative” employers without any justification.
Some states fell far below their inspection goals for the year.
A particularly egregious example includes the fact that Indiana’s OSHA program took more than a month, on average, to initiate an inspection in response to a complaint of unsafe conditions by a worker. Federal OSHA considers 10 days to be the maximum reasonable average for Indiana.
“The minuscule fines imposed by state OSHA programs function more as a slap on the wrist than actually forcing employers to clean up their acts,” O’Connor said. “With the maximum allowable fine already woefully insufficient, further reducing penalties against negligent – even repeatedly negligent – employers hardly incentivizes them to operate a safe workplace.”
Repeated attempts to amend the OSH Act to raise these maximum penalties – even to keep up with inflation over the decades since they were established – have failed in the U.S. Congress.
Some state programs, however, have exceeded federal OSHA in developing innovative new outreach, education and enforcement initiatives. For example, several states – including Washington, Oregon, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Illinois – have issued rules protecting workers from violence on the job, particularly in healthcare settings. And in Oregon, the state OSHA program has developed a range of specific standards regarding safety in agricultural work, going far beyond federal OSHA. A number of states also have established mandatory safety programs and safety committees in certain workplaces, requirements that do not exist currently under federal OSHA.